Literature and Epidemics: In Death, Some Geniuses Sang of Life
A tryst with the plague
On a moonless dark night in ancient Mathura, the ascetic Upagupta sleeping in a garden grounds woke suddenly to the rhythm of anklets and the rude light of a lamp focused on his face.
It was the enchanting Vasavdatta – famous courtesan of the Kingdom of Mathura. Walking through the garden on her way to a tryst, she was attracted by Upagupta’s handsomeness and requests him to come to her house.
She tells him this hard ground is not the place for him to sleep. The Buddhist monk replies that when the time comes, he will come to her himself.
This is the opening of the poem Abhisaar (journey to a tryst) by Rabindranath Tagore. The poem sketches a very realistic picture of what happened to people suffering through epidemics in ancient times.
Abhisaar, regularly staged in many adaptations in India and abroad, is only a curtain of the literary world and on lifting it we find how poets, storytellers and novelists have portrayed what they saw in their own lifetime while surviving pandemics and plagues.
Just four years before Abhisaar was born in 1900, the Black Death had ravaged the Bengal Province and other parts of the British Raj.
Tagore, however, is not the only literary figure who has made wordly sketches of the mass frenzy and psychological trauma the world faced at different junctures of history. The Decameron of Boccaccio, New Atlantis by Francis Bacon, and Utopia by Thomas More are some of the best examples of the plague literature of Europe.
Utopia (1516) merits a special mention as it talked of an ideal society free from epidemics. A world free from epidemics may be a Utopia but efforts can really be launched in India and other parts of the world to, at least, safeguard the humanity from its curse through preventive measures.
“But it is now time to explain to you the mutual intercourse of this people, their commerce, and the rules by which all things are distributed among them. As their cities are composed of families, so their families are made up of those that are nearly related to one another…
“If an accident has so lessened the number of the inhabitants of any of their towns that it cannot be made up from the other towns of the island without diminishing them too much (which is said to have fallen out but twice since they were first a people, when great numbers were carried off by the plague), the loss is then supplied by recalling as many as are wanted from their colonies, for they will abandon these rather than suffer the towns in the island [of Utopia] to sink too low.”
Let us wander further in the wonderland of literature, to Rajlakshmi O Srikanta, a very famous Bengali film based on the novel Shreekanta by Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya.
Like Vasavdatta and Upagupta, the story of it revolves round the vagabond Srikanta and the courtesan Rajlaxmi.
In the movie we find scenes of the epidemic in Bengal province that broke out about a century ago. Some tally with actual scenes of what has been happening during the Covid-19 attack in India.
In one such a very touching scene, Srikanta is shown suffering from high fever with signs of the disease and is brought to a kothi or palace by none other than Rajlaxmi.
Srikanta was a vagabond renouncing all earthly riches and Rajlaxmi, a tawaif (dancer), was rich and strikingly beautiful. He had nothing. She had everything. Something like Vasavdatta and Upagupta the monk.
Incidentally, Saratchandra’s first wife Shanti and their one-year-old son died of the plague in Rangoon (Yangon, Myanmar) during his Burmese days. No wonder he could express the pathos of losing someone very close through Rajlaxmi O Srikanta.
Some family members of Geoffrey Chaucer, the English writer of the Canterbury Tales, also died of the Black Death (bubonic plague) when it hit Europe in 1348. About eight years old when the epidemic struck London, Chaucer could never forget the scenes of people suddenly falling dead in the London streets.
From a modernised rendering by John Nicolson (1900)
Believe it or not, the outbreak of epidemics in the past gave new trends to literature, creating new genres, forwarding very revolutionary thoughts and novel ideas.
Before we deal with Boccaccio’s Decameron which shows how the plague shook people’s faith in the Papal authority of Rome, let us see what the monk Upagupta replied to Vasavdatta refusing her entreaty to move to her home.
Much to Vasavdatta’s dismay and displeasure, the monk says the time is not yet ripe. “When the time comes, I myself will come to you without invitation,” he tells her.
Now back to the Decameron to see how it brought about a new trend in international literature. Boccaccio’s thematic plot was simply unique for his time and place. The book recounts 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men who reach an empty house in Florence while fleeing from the Black Death of 1348.
These 100 stories depict all shades of human life: lust, love, sacrifice, avarice and who knows what else?
The plague literature of Europe also sometimes brought in new ideology. Take New Atlantis, written by Francis Bacon around 1626. It may surprise you that it talked about quarantining sailors to protect the imaginary island of Bensalem from contamination. What Bacon suggested in 1627, the world has done time and again, including in 2020: lockdowns to contain infection.
Incidentally, Bacon died of pneumonia in 1626 which then used to take the form of epidemics in Europe. New Atlantis was published posthumously.
The book describes an imaginary land named Bensalem, home of the people of lost Atlantis, where the scientific temperament was so high that the state had created a scientific institution to conduct such researches as creating submarines, wind turbines and hearing aids.
Incidentally, a township named Bensalem also exists in the USA but it has nothing to do with Bacon’s Bensalem.
Now, what are our Vasavdatta and Upagupta doing?
After being rebuked, the courtesan is shocked as people always oblige whatever she commands. But this penniless monk refuse her? She leaves the scene and proceeds on her abhisaar: tryst.
What happened to them will be dealt with later, let us have a glimpse of what Daniel Defoe wrote about the epidemic describing actual scenes – from memory – in A Journal of the Plague Year published in 1722.
Defoe gave graphic details of The Great Plague of London in 1665. He had been five years old then and wrote whatever little he remembered of it and all that he heard from his elders. He also used eyewitness accounts of the event.
This book, written as an authentic record of the plague in 1722 and not a fictional account at all, attained fictional status after about 60 years. Has this ever before happened in the literary history of the world?
“The people showed a great concern at this, and began to be alarmed all over the town, and the more, because in the last week in December 1664 another man died in the same house, and of the same distemper. And then we were easy again for about six weeks, when none having died with any marks of infection, it was said the distemper was gone; but after that, I think it was about the 12th of February, another died in another house, but in the same parish and in the same manner.
This turned the people’s eyes pretty much towards that end of the town, and the weekly bills showing an increase of burials in St Giles’s parish more than usual, it began to be suspected that the plague was among the people at that end of the town, and that many had died of it, though they had taken care to keep it as much from the knowledge of the public as possible. This possessed the heads of the people very much, and few cared to go through Drury Lane, or the other streets suspected, unless they had extraordinary business that obliged them to it
This increase of the bills stood thus: the usual number of burials in a week, in the parishes of St Giles-in-the-Fields and St Andrew’s, Holborn, were from twelve to seventeen or nineteen each, few more or less; but from the time that the plague first began in St Giles’s parish, it was observed that the ordinary burials increased in number considerably.”
There is also a feverish account of the plague ravaging towns in north Africa and west Asia in the 1340s, in the Moroccan jurist Ibn Battuta’s account of his travels through the known world. He wrote in 1348 that:
“Early in June we heard at Aleppo that the plague had broken out at Gaza, and that the number of deaths there reached over a thousand a day. On travelling to Hims I found that the plague had broken out there; about three hundred persons died of it on the day that I arrived. So I went on to Damascus, and arrived there on a Thursday. The inhabitants had then been fasting for three days; on the Friday they went out to the mosque of the Footprints, as we have related in the first book, and God eased them of the plague. The number of deaths among them reached a maximum of 2,400 a day.
Thereafter I journeyed to 'Ajalún and thence to Jerusalem, where I found that the ravages of the plague had ceased. We revisited Hebron, and thence went to Gaza, the greater part of which we found deserted becuse of the number of those who died there of the plague. I was told by the qádi that the number of deaths there reached 1,100 a day. We continued our journey overland to Damietta, and on to Alexandria. Here we found that the plague was diminishing in intesity, though the number of deaths had previously reached a thousand and eighty a day. I then travelled to Cairo, wehre I was told that the number of deaths during the epidemic rose to twenty-one thousand a day.”
It is now time to return to Upagupta.
Seven months have glided by since Upagupta refused Vasavdatta’s request. It is the month of Chaitra and in Mathura the festival is underway. All the people seem to be happy except one! Vasavdatta. In fact, she has little sense of anything at all as she has been swallowed up in an epidemic.
But from Mathura we venture now briefly to the Algerian port city of Oran, and see how Albert Camus thematically gave new direction to some literature by using epidemics as a theme.
In 1947, Camus’ The Plague appeared in bookshops in Europe and around the world. It is one of the immortal pieces of the existentialist genre. It basically deals with the condition of human being under the siegelike condition caused by an epidemic.
Its poignant depiction of mental trauma, be it a medical doctor or a fugitive escaping from the claws of law, were most wonderfully sketched with the Algerian Muslim city of Oran (then under French occupation) acting as the backdrop.
The novel tries to portray death as the biggest equator, which does not care to discriminate between rich and poor. Naturally, there is nothing called glorification of power: physical beauty, social status, money, political power.
“True, in the spring, when the epidemic was expected to end abruptly at any moment, no one troubled to take another's opinion as to its probable duration, since everyone had persuaded himself that it would have none.
“But as the days went by, a fear grew up that the calamity might last indefinitely, and then the ending of the plague became the target of all hopes. As a result copies of predictions attributed to soothsayers or saints of the Catholic Church circulated freely from hand to hand.
“The local printing firms were quick to realize the profit to be made by pandering to this new craze and printed large numbers of the prophecies that had been going round in manuscript.
“Finding that the public appetite for this type of literature was still unsated, they had researches made in the municipal libraries for all the mental pabulum of the kind available in old chronicles, memoirs, and the like. And when this source ran dry, they commissioned journalists to write up forecasts, and, in this respect at least, the journalists proved themselves equal to their prototypes of earlier ages.”
It is time to return one last time to the courtesan Vasavdatta in Mathura. Before the small pox had attacked her, she was the kingdom’s star, with everybody wanting to be by her side.
What happened to her after the epidemic struck?
One day as Mathura’s people celebrated the Chaitra Utsav or festival, Upagupta was moving carelessly outside the city’s walls. Suddenly he saw a woman’s body covered with pox and discarded by the townspeople for fear it would infect them.
It was Vasavdatta! Upagupta, who had once refused to go to her house, took charge of her saying: The time of our togetherness has come, Vasavdatta!
An abhisarika nayika (the trysting heroine type)